A Project Empowerment collection of essays on gender identity, sexual identity, and mental health.
Table of Contents
Click on each item below for the PDF version.
No Woodlot Bloomed in Spring Without Song (Or, a Brief Discussion of Gender and Sexuality)
By Hailey Donahue
So you’re pornographic if you’re lesbian.
So you’re a slut if you’re bisexual.
So you’re predatory if you’re transgender.
So you’re indecisive if you’re queer.
So you’re a prude if you’re asexual.
So you’re confused if you’re pansexual.
So… that’s a lie.
You aren’t a slut if you fancy multiple genders. You’re not a prude because you don’t feel sexual or— even romantic!—attraction to other people. You’re not pornographic if you like women. You’re not confused if you’re pansexual just because you can be attracted to anyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexuality. You’re not indecisive if you’re queer, it just means that’s the label that fits you. You’re not predatory if you’re transgender, you’re just accepting who you are as the person you are most comfortable being.
To talk about the LGBTQIA+ movement, one must first start at the beginning. Well, the beginning of the modern LGBTQIA+ movement. This movement really kicks off with a biracial lesbian: Stormé DeLarverie. She was the woman who started Stonewall.
The story behind Stonewall goes like this: A woman was handcuffed after being accosted at a bar. All the descriptions of this focus on the harshness of the police. Then, the woman gets taken through the crowd. She escapes multiple times. She gets hit on the head with a baton by an officer, and she fights back. She says “my handcuffs are too tight” to the crowd. She’s bleeding from a head wound. She says “why don’t you guys do something?” to the crowd. She gets put in the back of the police wagon, and the crowd finally does something. Not just anything, though. Punches are thrown.
Sure, nobody knows who threw the first punch, or even for sure that Ms DeLarverie was the one in the handcuffs, but many people accredit her with being the individual who kicked off Stonewall.
However, her role in the “Gay Liberation” movement is quite clear. She remained an influential figure in the LGBTQIA+ community, both as an activist and a performer and bouncer at many bars. Her obituary in the New York Times is an outstanding representation of who she was. Her identity was based on her intersectionality. She was a lesbian woman -a butch, lesbian woman- who was biracial. Every single part of her played a major role in defining the woman she was. She was described as “a gay superhero” in her obituary, and it’s no wonder why. She remained a major figure in the LGBTQIA+ movement until her mid eighties, and she was honoured by being one of fifty “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at Stonewall. She kicked ass.
She wasn’t alone. There were so many other people at Stonewall, many of whom were black, queer women, and black, trans women. Stonewall pushed the movement to the forefront of the public eye, bringing with it a variety of LGBTQIA+ centred newspapers and different activist groups. This included the strengthening of the Gay Liberation Front, which allied themselves with black power groups and anti-war demonstraters.
These groups practised tactics like “zapping” politicians and celebrities, which put them on the spot, and called attention to the needed support of the LGBTQIA+ community. This didn’t end in the sixties, either, it continued through the AIDS epidemic.
When discussing the AIDS epidemic, there are many issues to be brought up. The first is the obvious one: why in the world did a disease that can affect anyone become such a polarised issue. That’s an easy question: the eighties, when the AIDS epidemic became a major issue, were dominated by conservative politicians around the world. These leaders included Reagan, in the United States, and Thatcher, in the United Kingdom. Both pushed for more conservative policies, both economic and socially. This was detrimental to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Another issue is the lack of a cure. Although current treatments do exist for HIV/AIDS, there is no definite cure for it. Doctors are still looking for a way to remove the disease completely. When the disease first became prominent, no one knew what to do. Many doctors could not even tell what the epidemic was caused by. Some thought it was cancer, and some thought it was a virus, and it wasn’t until 1983 that the disease was even determined to be a virus. Even with that information, doctors did not know how to treat the illness.
However, the ultimate issue with the AIDS epidemic is the stigmatism of it. It was seen as a disease exclusive to gay men, even though many, many other people contracted it. It was even called “gay-related immune deficiency” by 1982. Due to the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS, many gay men were left scorned in hospitals and doctors offices. During this time period, lesbians and queer women came in to “soothe, heal, and care for the gay men around them who were living qith HIV.” These women worked tirelessly from the beginning of the epidemic, coming from all walks of life and all backgrounds to treat a subset of their community who were often denied proper treatment and care from medical practitioners.
This leads us to another common misconception about the LGBTQIA+ community. You’ve probably heard the statement that it’s just the younger generation with a larger proportion of LGBTQIA+ individuals. And it might be that younger generations are more accepting, and younger generations are more likely to have positive treatment when they come out, but a different perspective is that it’s not that there are more individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ now.
Instead, a possible theory is that a lot of the LGBTQIA+ individuals of previous generations are dead. Those who contracted HIV/AIDS in the early eighties faced death at greater rates than non-LGBTQIA+ individuals. Even more were murdered by peers.
The haunting legacy of the AIDS epidemic can still be seen today. Restrictions on gay men giving blood are still around in a variety of countries, and it has only been recently that the the Food and Drug Administration has accepted blood from men in sexual relationships with men. But there are still restrictions. They can’t give blood if they’ve had sex within three months. Even if it’s with a long term partner. Even if it’s with a spouse. They still have to meet every single other criteria. Cisgender, heterosexual men don’t have to refrain from giving blood if they’ve had a one night stand the night before.
But I digress.
Another major issue that affects all of the LGBTQIA+ community is sexual harassment and sexual assault. According to the Human Rights Coalition, individuals who identify as being a part of the LGBTQOA+ community are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual assault.
This is due to a myriad of reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the stigmatisation of the LGBTQIA+ community, and marginalisation. Lesbian and bisexual women are three times as likely to report being sexually harassed than heterosexual women. Transgender individuals are even more likely to experience sexual violence, with around 64% of transgender invidiudals reporting so. A majority of these individuals tend to be young people of colour. “Among people of colour, [Native American] (65%), Multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%), and Black (53%) respondents of the 2015 US Transgender Survey were most likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime” according to the Human Rights Coalition. Younger individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community are more likely to experience sexual assault or sexual harassment as well. In a variety of cases, the assault occurs before the individual is eighteen.
These individuals are victimised by rape culture. They are told that “they are responsible for their sexual assaults.” One of the negative stereotypes mentioned earlier was the sexualisation of the LGBTQIA+ community, and that plays a major role in the victim blaming of these individuals. One of the most searched categories on pornhub in 2019 was “lesbian” porn, only passed by terms singling out East Asian women. When considering the most popular porn searches of 2019, a majority of the categories were focused on different races. Some of the most popular included “Japanese,” “Arab,” and “Turkish.” In this, we see the sexualisation of both women of colour and LGBTQIA+ women, in addition to sexualisation of children –often young girls. The trend was similar in 2021, though it also included an increase in porn watched by cisgender, heterosexual men, watching porn that exploited transgender individuals as well. Though this does not solely explain the issues surrounding the hyper-sexualisation of the LGBTQIA+ community, it plays a large role in the vulnerability of the population.
The sexualisation of the community is not new. This is a terrifying, horrible fact. Comments posed to sapphic women about threesomes and taking them as a challenge have been around for decades. The sexualisation and sexual harassment faced by trans people of all genders has existed for far too long. It’s time to take a stand against this. It’s time to stand up for the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole.
So you’re lesbian if you’re lesbian.
So you’re bisexual if you’re bisexual.
So you’re transgender if you’re transgender.
So you’re queer if you’re queer.
So you’re asexual if you’re asexual.
So you’re pansexual if you’re pansexual.
You are yourself, and you are the person who decides what labels you attach to yourself, whatever those labels might be. You choose whatever fits best for you, be that what you label your sexuality or your gender as.
Title pulled from this quote by Sappho:
“If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
“all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck
“myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
“while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song…”
- American Psychological Association
- NBC News
- Annual Report on Porn Statistics
- The Hyper-sexualization of Lesbians and Queer Women
- Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community – Human Rights Campaign
- Sexual Assault in the LGBTQ Community – National Center for Lesbian Rights
- Differences in Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Women’s Experiences of Sexual Assault and Rape in a National US Sample
- The Trevor Project
- Black women, the forgotten survivors of sexual assault
Mental Health: Living with An Anxiety Disorder
I was seventeen when I experienced my first panic attack, a psychiatric episode of intense anxiety and panic that can include
- a frightening sense of unreality (derealization)
- sweating or shaking
- sharp chest pain
and usually lasts for 5-30 minutes (though I can guarantee it feels like a lot more!). The fear was so intense that I dissociated – I could not tell where or who I was–and that in itself was frightening. My ears rang and I gagged multiple times. I just remember this overbearing, suffocating sense of: the world is coming to an end. The mental anguish was so severe that it felt like my worst nightmare had come true. Even when the anxiety finally plateaued about half an hour later, I was not the same for days afterward–I couldn’t sleep, eat, or function properly–and every time I was alone, I feared another attack would strike (this is very common after someone’s first panic attack).
After years of struggling with undiagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer experiences constant and agonizing worry pretty much constantly, my anxiety refused to be repressed. Now there was no denying it.
Here’s what living with GAD feels like, but constantly:
- The feeling when the subway doors close before you can hop in
- When you’re tipping back your chair and about to fall
- You have just gotten very upsetting news
- It’s your dream job interview in 5 minutes and you’re underprepared
- You have just been publicly humiliated
- You are running from a bull
All of that is pretty exhausting, so symptoms of fatigue, tiredness, and irritability are pretty common symptoms.
My above recollection, written months after the incident, may seem dramatic. As I later learned, most panic attacks aren’t as severe as my first. Sometimes, you can sit quietly in a classroom, praying panic away as your palms melt into puddles of sweat and your heart loses its trochaic rhythm. I have found that the more severe the panic, the harder it is to hide.
Anxiety & your nervous system
By its definition, anxiety is a “glitch” of your nervous system, affecting parts of the brain such as the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system. The symptoms of panic all serve a biological purpose — for example, your heart races to ensure that you have enough blood flow in your arms and legs to fight off an imagined predator – and range from uncomfortable to severe. And sometimes, extreme, untreated anxiety can confuse your nervous system. Rarely, this can lead to more long-term symptoms of illness similar to ones you would find in a panic attack.
Someone related to me (anxiety is genetic!) started experiencing “vomiting and presyncope,” to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed or sleep two summers ago. “I also couldn’t keep any food down, but no one could figure out why. I just continued to lose weight and Google frantically, imagining the worst.”
After her doctor ordered multiple panels of blood work and sent her to various specialists, they all concluded that her symptoms likely stemmed from severely disordered anxiety. “Once people understood that I was feeling sick because of a mental illness, the difference was shocking,” she admits. “Any sympathy they had completely washed away, and it was almost like the very physical manifestation disappeared in their eyes — nobody asked how I was feeling anymore. Some religious figures in my community suggested that my anxiety was a result of a lack of faith. It was pretty shocking.”
*Name omitted for privacy.
After getting diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, I started taking Lexapro, an antidepressant commonly used off-label for anxiety, and found much relief. However, medication is not a cure-all and anxiety is a life-long diagnosis. In all likelihood, I will struggle with disordered anxiety for the rest of my life. Drugs like Gabapentin and Propranolol help for acute, short-term anxiety during panic attacks. Speak to your psychiatric care provider about what could work best for you.
The Physiology of GAD
Doesn’t everyone have anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal (and even essential) part of modern life, so it can be challenging to understand why a common and often adaptive human emotion can be considered a condition. However, disordered anxiety is not even comparable to feeling a little nervous while running late to school, or before a final. Disordered anxiety is characterized by persistent and excessive feelings of anxiety, of which the sufferer usually feels that he or she has little control over. By definition, disordered anxiety is not just a passing emotion or temporary reaction – it is a debilitating physical and mental condition.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. Unlike social anxiety or specific phobias, this disorder causes constant worry about nothing in particular–what Freud called “free-floating anxiety.” In fact, many people with this kind of anxiety often are not sure themselves why they are so anxious. To further complicate matters, the human body can not distinguish between excess cortisol (a stress hormone) that is being pumped through the body for no reason or as a reaction to a bear chase. Regardless of the validity of the reason for one’s unease, any extreme anxiety triggers the body’s fight-or-flight reaction. This is our body’s natural evolutionary mechanism against threats. Because of changes that are spurred by this reaction, several unpleasant physical symptoms can arise.
The strangest possible sensations can be caused by anxiety.
I’ve had eye twitching, muscle cramps, and spots in my vision.
The first mechanism through which the body tries to protect itself from a perceived threat is through diverting blood flow towards the arms and legs. In theory, this would strengthen the endangered person’s arms and legs, helping them run away from or fight off a potential threat. However, there is no threat, and this fast redirection of blood from the brain can lead to extreme lightheadedness and dizziness (feeling like the room is spinning or that the floor is moving underneath you). Other anxiety-related causes of this symptom are temporarily increased blood pressure (the result of a rapidly beating heart) and heart palpitations. It is easy to see how severe wooziness and dizziness reinforce anxiety, thus creating a vicious cycle.
The hormones that are released during this reaction also cause a response in the gut, which is often referred to as the second brain (ever heard the phrase “gut-brain axis”?). The changes that result from this can lead to nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. These symptoms can occur in an acute onset of anxiety (also known as a panic attack) or chronically. This can have a significant impact on appetite and weight.
Anxiety feels like I was just punched in the face all day, every day.
Although anxiety can cause tens of symptoms, the last one I will discuss is numbness and tingling. As a reaction to stress, blood vessels constrict. This can cut off blood supply to certain body parts, usually the extremities, leading to strange tingling or numbness feelings that can be very unsettling. But this sensation can be felt anywhere in the body, including on the face. This can make the person experiencing it feel even more edge because it often leads people to wonder if something is medically wrong with them.
Treatment for anxiety can include CBT therapy, medication and a healthy lifestyle. CBT works by reframing the negative thought processes that contribute to anxiety. Medications such as SSRIs can help prevent serotonin from being excessively reabsorbed into the neurons in the brain. Additionally, a healthy lifestyle is key for managing stress for anyone, and especially for stress associated with an anxiety disorder. This includes drinking adequate water, eating a proper balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and carbs, and exercising at least a few times a week.
Anxiety is not necessarily preventable, but it can still be managed very effectively. This is because it is usually caused mostly by a combination of genetic, biochemical, and personality factors, all over which a person has no control.
Other anxiety disorders
GAD isn’t the only anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include:
Composed of obsessions & compulsions (example: you can be obsessed with preventing a fire, so your compulsion would be checking your stove tens of times at night)
1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
Triggered by witnessing a traumatic event: flashbacks, severe anxiety, uncontrollable thoughts, rumination, nightmares
2. Social Phobia:
The irrational fear of being publicly humiliated or being seen as vulnerable or misunderstood
3. Other phobias (ex: thalassophobia, emetophobia):
A specific, highly intense fear of one thing, like vomiting
4. Panic disorder:
Repeated episodes of panic attacks lasting from 5-30 minutes
My best friend lives with OCD. Here’s what she said she would want someone who calls it an “organizing disorder” to know:
The 24/7 anxiety and constant compulsions made me want to scream. I’ve rocked on the floor freaking out and I’ve gone through over 100 disposable gloves a week. I’ve destroyed my hands for weeks and avoided so much. I’ve taken medications that gave me horrible side effects and gone through multiple bottles of body wash in a week. That’s OCD.
I also spoke to someone diagnosed with social phobia (or social anxiety disorder) who summed it up well:
I have Social Anxiety Disorder, which makes a regular day tough. Even when I know all the answers, I am terrified to raise my hand, as if everyone is going to start laughing at me the moment I open my mouth.
My personal experience with GAD is that it feels like living on the edge. It feels like your most stressful day of the year, but every day. Any external factor–like running late, a family member not responding to your phone call–is enough to trigger an anxiety or panic attack, sending you into a spiral of struggle that is hard to break out of and often includes full-fledged physical symptoms. Simply, it is already too much–and the tiniest thing can set us fully over the edge.
What happens at the psychiatrist?
I avoided getting diagnosed with anxiety for years because of stigma and fears of reaching out for help. Now, I wish I had reached out before the disorder had fully burgeoned, because the consequences are long-term.
At your appointment, the doctor is interested in learning about what your day-to-day life is like and how your symptoms impact your daily activity. If you think you have anxiety, you can take the GAD-7 to see if you should visit a psychiatrist. Click here to take the questionnaire.
As tempting as it is, try not to self-diagnose! Disorders can be very closely related to each other. For example, I had no idea I had OCD in addition to anxiety until I was diagnosed. Similarly, bipolar disorder can closely mirror depression, and it is important that you get the correct diagnosis and treatment because what works for one disorder may be detrimental to another one. However, your experience is valid. If you think you meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis, you can try saying to the doctor, “I’ve done some research on ____ and I think I have it because _____. What do you think?”
What not to say, and what to try instead:
- Don’t worry. (Oh my god, I actually never thought of that!!)
- Pray more. (Anxiety is a health condition, not a lack of faith).
- Really, what’s the worst case scenario? (Um… you don’t want me to answer that)
- Give all your anxiety away to God. (Remind me to throw out my medication!)
- Relax more! (I can’t).
- Everyone has anxiety these days! (Exactly, and I have an anxiety disorder).
- I have anxiety too– during finals I get so stressed. (It feels like finals week every week for us).
- At least it’s not… (pro tip: don’t ever say this to anyone about anything).
What to try instead:
- What are you thinking about? Only ask if you care to listen!
- What are you currently interested in? We often live a stressful existence and talking about something exciting can be a great distraction.
- What do you need to hear right now? Being a good friend shouldn’t be guesswork.
- You’re doing great. I am so proud of you. What everyone needs to hear!
- I noticed that you’re struggling. Just thought I’d let you know that I care!
During a severe panic attack, your loved one may be too breathless or disassociated to carry on a conversation. Try saying:
- “It always ends.”
- “You will be okay.”
- “You will be calm again.”
- “Anxiety does not mean danger.”
- “You’re safe.”
- “I am right here.”
- “Can you tell me where we are? What’s your favorite color?” (or other distracting questions)
- Setting a timer for 30 minutes and holding it within their view.
- Hand them a wet washcloth to put on their face.
- Hold their hand if they want that.
- Administering (prescribed) anxiety medication.
- Calling someone they trust.
- Sit silently beside them and appear to be calm, even if you feel scared or worried.
What to remember:
- You are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from GAD.
- There is treatment: therapy and medication can do wonders.
- It’s not your fault. The origins of GAD are genetic, neurobiological, and environmental–not your faith or lack thereof.
- Find a support group. Having a friend who suffers from OCD helps me feel understood. Hopefully none of your friends struggle with mental illness, but there are support groups for all conditions you can access through your local community center.
- Your anxiety does not define you! What else makes you awesome?
Stigma and accommodations
Panic attacks can induce agoraphobia, wherein the sufferer acquires a fear of being in public due to worries that a panic attack will strike. For months after my first panic attack, the thought of even heading to the Target down the street triggered sweaty palms.
I personally struggled mightily to receive accommodations at my small private school that might seem commonplace. For example, during the height of my anxiety, I asked to opt out of a three-day overnight trip, and was perceived to be having a bad attitude by my belligerent administration. When I asked for exemption from an amusement park trip during a particularly tough time, I was informed that I was being snobby by refusing to join my classmates, and my principal insinuated that I would never be a good mother and wife–a sexist diversion from the accommodations that would make my life a lot easier. When in doubt:
- Understand that you can’t understand. And then ask them to explain (and listen).
- Exercise empathy. How would you want to be treated?
- Don’t try to be “helpful.” It’s not your job to help someone else beat their anxiety (unless they’ve hired you). As a school administrator, parent, or friend, don’t try to “fix” people by forcing them to do things they find excruciating.
- Refer to our article on self-advocacy for tips on receiving the accommodations you may need for your mental health condition.
- Anxiety is not curable, but treatment can help.
- Anxiety has nothing to do with faith–and asking for accommodations does not make you a bad person.
- Mental suffering is just as valid as physical suffering.
- Exercise, medication, talk therapy, and support groups can be very helpful in living your best life.